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Review: Staff Meal Is a Sample Platter of Surreal Situations

Abe Koogler’s strange new play doesn’t commit enough to its strangeness.

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Erin Markey, Jess Barbagallo, and Carmen M. Herlihy appear in Abe Koogler’s Staff Meal, directed by Morgan Green, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Chelcie Parry)

It’s a drag to know exactly where a play is headed from the first scene. I much prefer getting lost on the journey to some unknown destination. And for that one reason, Abe Koogler should be congratulated on his latest play, Staff Meal, a thoroughly unpredictable dip into the collective unconscious. If only this world premiere production at Playwrights Horizons could entice us to swim deeper.

It starts out plainly enough, with two busy bees, Ben (Greg Keller) and Mina (Susannah Flood), tapping away at their MacBooks as they occupy adjacent tables at a coffee shop — most likely Starbucks considering the looming threat of a Vagrant (Erin Markey) who would like to snatch their computers. A series of short scenes tracks the development of their relationship, from “hey” to a full-blown invitation to dinner.

They migrate to a very special restaurant owned by guru chef Gary Robinson (also Markey) and staffed by sycophantic servers (Jess Barbagallo and Carmen M. Herlihy excel as this Tweedledee-Tweedledum routine). A waiter (Hampton Fluker) directly addresses us to discuss the wine cellar buried deep beneath the surface, flashing back to his first day on the job and first staff meal. All the while, the end of the world seems to be approaching. A little bit Mulholland Drive, a little bit Marisol, Staff Meal defies easy categorization. Unfortunately, that doesn’t automatically mean the viewer will remain interested in its meandering journey.

A top-notch production can take a play like this far. There are directors with a talent for conjuring an intangible tension that compels you lean forward and pay extra attention (I’m thinking specifically of the work Anne Kauffman and David Cromer have helmed on this very stage). Morgan Green is not one of them — at least not here.

Susannah Flood and Greg Keller appear in Abe Koogler’s Staff Meal, directed by Morgan Green, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Chelcie Parry)

Jian Jung’s set of moving walls, endlessly shifting upstage and down, seems meant to instill a sense of disorientation, but really it just ensures that the stage grows ever uglier as patterned wallpaper gives way to glossy black paint. Masha Tsimring’s lighting occasionally makes for some striking stage pictures as we see the actors reflected in the inky darkness, but it also creates unsightly blurs where that light is aimed directly at the set. Tei Blow’s vigorous sound design gleefully leaps between horror and farce, never fully committing to either (much like the play). And costume designer Kaye Voyce offers a similarly expansive take on character who don’t always seem to be inhabiting the same world.

That disunity is most apparent in the performances. Keller and Flood seem to occupy the same plane, endowing their characters with the quirks and obsessions of a professional class desperately trying to fill the spiritual void left by organized religion (she longs for a return to impossibly ideal dinner parties, he suspects he was the victim of a shipwreck — not the Titanic — in a past life). But then the focus shifts, as if Koogler became just as bored with their woo-woo monologues as we do.

Of the whole cast, Fluker comes the closest to pulling us into the twilight zone with a genuinely intriguing monologue about the wine cellar. Markey, with her effortless comic flourishes, takes us right out of it — although I wasn’t always sure why. At least Stephanie Berry makes the most of her role, sending a shock wave of real dramatic tension through the house and momentarily waking us all up. Sadly, this extraordinary moment devolves into a confessional monologue, and we are back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The result is a play that feels less like falling through a series of dreams and more like a handful of small plays forced to simultaneously share a stage by the world’s stingiest fringe festival. Staff Meal promises a nine-course tasting menu of strange theatrical flavors, but it turns out to be mostly kale.

 

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Staff Meal

Closed: May 24, 2024